We’d probably like to think that we’d make the same ethical decisions when speaking our native language as a foreign one, but a recent study by Costa and colleagues at the University of Chicago argues against that intuition. They argue that when we speak a foreign language, we experience emotional distancing, and therefore make decisions that are more utilitarian and less emotionally-based.
Their experiment relies on the trolley problem, a ubiquitous philosophical dilemma. In the “footbridge” version of the dilemma, respondents are asked to imagine standing on a footbridge above railroad tracks. They see a train heading toward five people on the tracks. If it hits them, they’ll die. There’s one way to avoid these five deaths, which is to push a fat man, standing nearby, down onto the tracks. Thus, one man will die, but five will be saved. Alternatively, the respondent can choose not to actively push the man off, and the five people will be hit.
In general, people are reluctant to push the man off the bridge. Even though that would be the more utilitarian option, losing one life and sparing five, the emotional distress of physically pushing the man off keeps us from choosing this option. However, when the researchers presented bilinguals (who spoke a variety of different languages) with the problem either in their native or foreign language, they found that regardless of what the native and foreign languages were, people tended to choose the utilitarian option significantly more when they responding in their foreign language. In fact, the rate at which they chose the utilitarian option went from 20% (when presented the problem in their native language) to 33% (when presented in their L2), and increase of more than half the original response rate. The authors suggest that a “reduced emotional resonance of a foreign language leads individuals to be less affected by an emotional aversion to pushing the man, allowing them to make more utilitarian decisions.”
However, there are a few alternative explanations, which the researchers explored with a follow-up experiment. The first is that when people are asked the trolley problem in their non-native language, processing the question increases their cognitive load and thus makes them more likely to respond at random. This could explain why the rate of choosing the utilitarian option was affected in the direction of becoming closer to chance (50%).
To test this, the authors used a second version of the trolley problem, the “switch” task. In this case, the respondent doesn’t have to push a man off a bridge in order to sacrifice his life for the five. Instead, he or she has the choice to pull a switch, which will redirect the train from the track it was on, heading toward the five people, to one in which there is only one man. Again, the respondent can choose to change the situation so that one life is lost instead of five, but people are more apt to choose the utilitarian choice in this case than in the footbridge case, as they feel less directly responsible for the sacrifice. Thus, if presenting the problem in a foreign language makes people more likely to choose randomly, there should be no effect of whether the question is framed in a person’s native or non-native language. That is exactly what the researchers found.
Another possibility for the original findings that was addressed in the follow-up is that speaking a language primes a person for the cultural norms associated with that language. The second experiment crossed language and nativeness by using a group of English/Spanish bilinguals and a group of Spanish/English bilinguals. Both groups showed differed response patterns in their native languages (whether it’s English or Spanish) than in their foreign languages, effectively ruling out the possibility that language is just a prime for associated cultural values.
Another cool finding was that the less proficient a person was in their second language, the more utilitarian their responses. Assuming that a foreign language induces people to emotionally distance themselves from the situation at hand, it seems logical that being less proficient in that language results in even greater emotional distancing.
Since millions of people speak a foreign language every day and are inevitably making ethical decisions while doing so, these results are pretty important. I wonder what the world would be like if we all spoke one language and therefore made all our decisions in our native language… more emotionally-based? And would that be a good thing?